Karen Wright: An interview by Bob Morris

Wright, KarenKaren Wright is an executive coach, author, speaker and consultant.  She has an MBA in Marketing from the Ivey Business School and an undergraduate degree in Economics from Western University.  She graduated from the world’s leading coach training organization, was one of the inaugural students in its affiliated Corporate Coaching program, is a teacher for both schools and mentors new coaches around the world. Karen is trained in numerous assessment instruments and processes and worked with Dr. Martin Seligman in the first cohort of coaches trained in his positive psychology-based coaching program.  She is a recent graduate of the Institute of Integrative Nutrition, which has provided the foundation for her new executive peak performance and top talent development program for organizations.  The first Professional Certified Coach (PCC) in Canada and now one of an elite group of Master Certified Coaches, a past International Coach Federation Board member, and founder of the Toronto Chapter, Karen is a leader in the field of corporate coaching. 

A nationally published columnist and sought-after speaker, Karen has been featured many times in the media and is a trusted resource for inquiries on leadership and career-related topics. The Complete Executive: The 10-Step System for Great Leadership Performance is her latest book, published by Bibliomotion (2012).

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Morris: Before discussing The Complete Executive, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Wright:  So many!  My grandmother, I suppose, if I have to name just one.  She was strong and resourceful and creative and always maintained her sense of humor even in the most challenging of times.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Wright:  Every client I’ve ever worked with has challenged me and helped me grow on some level – my work as a coach is a constant exercise in personal and professional growth.   My mastermind group members, who won’t allow me to take the easy way if it won’t be my best work.  And I’ve had a couple of mentors over the years who have helped me hugely.  I’m lucky – there have been many I’ve been able to learn from.

Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Wright:  Yes, definitely.  I had a career in consumer packaged goods marketing that led me to accept a move to the U.S. (from my home in Canada) with Frito-Lay.  There were a number of organizational changes that resulted in my having several different bosses in a very short period of time which meant I had no clear mandate and no clear career direction.  As I recognized the problem I also recognized that it was time for me to choose a different path, so I resigned and began the process of intentionally designing my next step.  That process ultimately led to coaching.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Wright:  Hugely, but not in the sense of the academic learning being critical. It was useful, to be sure, but I don’t think that’s where I derived the greatest benefit.  I learned how to work in a team, how to manage time, how to juggle priorities (I supported myself financially while I was in school).  I also learned critical thinking and problem solving – the business school I attended teaches with the case method, which I still believe is incredibly powerful.

Morris: What do you know now about business that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Wright:  I wish I’d known how important it is to understand the dynamics of the people in any given situation. I think I went into my first job thinking my success would be all about the quality of my work. Not an uncommon assumption, particularly at an early career stage, but I believe I had co-workers at the time who had greater interpersonal intelligence in spite of their youth and they did very well.

Morris:  From which non– business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

Wright:  One of my favorites is Dr. Seuss’ Oh, The Places You’ll Go! I believe in abundance and possibility and the power of personal choice and initiative and our ability to get through tough times and succeed against the odds and that’s what that great book is all about.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Wright:  I truly believe that the great leaders are “ego-less.” Confident, but ego-less.  For me that means that if you learn from everyone around you and bring out the best in others and ensure they feel a sense of pride and ownership, and if the right things are done for the right reasons, that is success, and it doesn’t matter who actually gets the “credit.”

Morris: From Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

Wright:  I’ll see you Oscar Wilde and raise you Lily Tomlin: “I always wanted to be somebody but now I see I should have been more specific.”  I think that the incredibly self-aware individual is rare, and to have great self-awareness combined with the courage to fully express your individuality is uncommon indeed.   And it’s true – each of us is unique and I don’t think the world, particularly the world of work, easily accepts that which is different.  Sad, really.

Morris: From Albert Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Wright:  I use Einstein’s definition of insanity frequently. I think we all get stuck using our favorite tools and approaches.  Creativity is hard, especially under pressure or in difficult circumstances – but that’s when it’s needed most.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Wright:  I like to ask clients to ask themselves two questions when deciding how to manage their time.  First, ask “Must this be done?”  I know for sure that we all do things that would not be missed if we stopped.  And that’s particularly true in organizations where oftentimes an individual’s entire reason for being is to create reports or analyses that are not used or useful.  Second question – “Must I be the one to do it?” If the thing truly MUST be done, then it’s critical that it be done by whoever has the unique skills and experiences required – and that’s not usually the person charged with doing the thing.  So yes, I agree with Mr. Drucker wholeheartedly.

Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

 I’m not sure any of us can decide in advance what mistakes to make. We can only decide whether or not to take a risk – whether to venture into uncharted territory.

Morris: In your opinion, why do so many C-level executives seem to have such a difficult time delegating work to others?

Wright:  Work is measurable, satisfying, comfortable.  When we’re under stress we default to what we know and are sure of, so that’s sometimes why delegation is tough for some.  In other cases there might be an issue of trust – do I have the right people in the right jobs? But better to solve for the talent issue than to cover it up by doing their work for them.  That said, one of the toughest challenges for anyone to do is to hire people who are better than they are, but it’s what must be done for the success of the entire enterprise.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Wright:  Storytelling is almost always the best way to make an emotional connection, and it’s only when people are emotionally connected that they are really committed.  And leaders need commitment.

Morris: In recent years, there has been criticism, sometimes severe criticism of M.B.A. programs, even those offered by the most prestigious business schools. In your opinion, in which area is there the great need for immediate improvement? Any suggestions?

Wright:  The business school I attended (Ivey www.uwo.ivey.ca) recently introduced something called Cross-Enterprise Leadership. It’s based on the premise that organizations don’t work in subject matter silos, so why are we teaching business students that way?  I think it’s brilliant and exactly the innovation required in business education.  You can check it out by clicking here.

Now please shift your attention to The Complete Executive. When and why did you decide to write it?

Wright:  Over the years I’ve been coaching I’ve noticed patterns and similarities among the really successful, happy, healthy people I’ve had the privilege to work with, so I finally decided to catalogue them and create what I’ve observed as a system that can be replicated.

Morris: Please explain the reference to “complete” in the book’s title. How so?

Wright:  “Complete” refers to the foundational principle that true thriving leadership is not just about business accomplishment but rather it’s about all important aspects of life – and that one must thrive in all of those critical aspects in order to be complete.

Morris: In your opinion, what are the most significant differences between an executive coach and an executive mentor?

Wright:  A mentor has experience to share, knowledge to impart, war stories of mistakes made and lessons learned.  A coach is a partner, an objective sounding board, a holder of accountability.

Morris: As I indicated in my review of the book, I think the 10-step program you recommend to your reader will indeed provide “the necessary strong foundation.” By what process did you determine what the steps would be and in which order?

Wright:  I started by listing all of the things I know that really happy, healthy, successful people do.  I also worked with some of the models and principles from my coach training that are based on whole-life success which transcends career.  As for the order, I had to start with health because without that nothing else is possible.  From there the sections address life in general, then some more business-focused aspects such as leadership skills and career planning.  The final section is the hardest work – the reflection and high level planning.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read The Complete Executive, you organize your material within ten chapters. In each of them, you provide ten points of emphasis, followed by an end-of-chapter section, “The Bottom Line.” Do you agree with my suggestion that a reader complete or at least review the “assessment” first before proceeding sequentially through the narrative or cherry-picking areas in apparent need of improvement? Please explain.

Wright:  I do agree that taking the assessment prior to reading the detail is a good idea.

Morris: What is the primary purpose of the “Bottom Line” sections?

Wright:  When I was writing the book I felt the need to “tie a bow” on each section before proceeding to the next one.  The specific ten points in each section could be argued – there could be any number of alternatives that could have been included – but the premise behind why each major section is important and I felt that the concluding statement helped make that point.

Morris: Please suggest the key point for each of several mini-commentaries, what I characterize as “business nuggets.” First, #7,  Sleep

Wright:  I think that sleep – in sufficient quality and quantity – is the single biggest casualty of our modern business culture – and there is significant science behind the assertion that insufficient or poor sleep begets stress, weight gain, illness, poor brain function and a litany of other ailments and issues.  I simply [begin italics] had [end italics] to include sleep in the health/fitness section.

Morris: #17, Legacy/Significance

Wright:  At the end of it all, why are we doing what we’re doing?  I think that if you ask yourself the question about what will live beyond you, it helps frame your priorities.

#33, Values and Walking the Talk

Wright:  Nobody is fooled if a leader says one thing and does another.  The main criticism I hear about leaders is their perceived “lack of integrity.” When decisions are made that appear to be contrary to what’s been described as important, it causes confusion and stress.  A true leader makes it clear what’s important and then acts with 100% consistency.

Morris: #89, Spontaneity

Wright:  Sometimes the best results, the best experiences, come from acting on what seems like a crazy idea.  Our lives are so scheduled, there’s very little free time and open space –and yet it’s the open space that creates the opportunity for innovation and creativity.

Morris: I also commend you on your selection of quotations that you insert strategically throughout the narrative. Please share your thoughts about a few. First, from Dale Morrison, Partner, TriPointe Capital Partners: “We are not who we think we are as leaders, we are who we are perceived to be…that is why ongoing feedback and coaching are so important to the leadership development process.”

Wright:  Dale is a marketer, and marketers know that perception is what you’ve got to work with and manage, so he understands that the same principle applies to leadership.

Morris: From Tom Greco, President, Frito-Lay North America: “Hire Gretskys. Surround yourself with people who are better than you are. They will challenge the status quo, push you harder, and ensure that you are looking around the right corners.”

Wright:  Tom was the first leader I ever worked with who truly had no concern about hiring someone smarter and more talented. He knew that hiring the best was the sure way to success, both for the business and for the leader.  He gave me that advice when I was trying to decide between two candidates – when he asked the question about who was smarter and better than me, the decision was easy and obvious.

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read The Complete Executive and wants to institutionalize the book’s ten-step system throughout the given enterprise. Where to begin?

Wright:  At the beginning, of course!  The book was laid out intentionally, with health as the first category and progressing with greater degrees of difficulty and accessibility from there.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in The Complete Executive, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Wright:  The idea of daily reflection is, for me, the habit that has the greatest potential to create positive impact for an individual.  We are so busy, so frenetic, so wired to react – the practice of taking time every single day to get centered and focused and make conscious decisions about what to do and what’s important – that’s big.

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Karen cordially invite(s) you to check out the resources at these websites:

Her home page

Parachute Executive Coaching home page

Karen’s Amazon page.

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